Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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735 words

Feedback is a big topic. Particularly in the physical world. If you press a button, it’s very helpful if you can feel the exact moment at which the button is pressed. Which is why the third generation iPod is probably the one with the worst user interface: The scroll wheel doesn’t give you any feedback about what you’re doing (as the first generation iPod’s did) and not a single one of the buttons is pressed by merely touching it – without any immediate feedback whatsoever. This makes it rather hard to operate the iPod while it’s in your pocket. At least the second point is quite a problem usability-wise. And thankfully it has been vastly improved with the click-wheel int the iPod mini and the fourth generation iPods.

While a lack of feedback can be irritating, there’s one thing which is worse feedback-wise: wrong feedback. Traditionally we haven’t seen this a lot. Light switches tend to click at the very moment the light goes on because the mechanics that close the circuit just happen to make a clicking noise at the right moment. The feedback and the function are so close together that nothing can go wrong.

With more modern things, though, there may be less mechanical parts and more electronics and software. This means that things will start going wrong just because they can. Apple Computer seem to be particularly good at getting this wrong. Two completely separate aspects of that came to my attention repeatedly:

The first are notebook chargers. At some stage Apple started introducing chargers with little lights in their plugs. The light goes on when it’s plugged into the notebook. This is a good idea because it’ll assure you that your notebook is being charged, i.e. that all the connections are made, that the wall socket is working &c, without needing too look at the screen. (Actually those plugs have two colours which indicate different states but I can never remember which one is which.) But it’s very poorly executed: The light will come on when the plug is about 90% inserted but the notebook isn’t connected to the electricity yet. And that’s the worst than can happen: The feedback telling you everything’s all right but nothing actually happening.

The second is iPod connection. When the iPod is inserted into its Dock it makes this ‘blip’ sound. A nice and reassuring thing in my opinion. But sometimes it doesn’t mean anything. You’ll hear the sound be the iPod isn’t sitting in the Dock correctly and won’t charge or be usable in iTunes.

Both of these phenomena aren’t unique to the machines I use, I asked friends and had them play around with their Powerbooks, iBooks or iPods and it seems that these behaviours can be quite easily reproduced.

The bottom line is that Apple shouldn’t ship such stuff. And as we’ve seen quite poor quality control in Apple’s software departments in the past years, perhaps the same management genius that led to those problems is also responsible for the hardware issues I describe above. Sure, they may only happen every twentieth or fiftieth time you plug the iPod or the charger in. But that’s certainly something that a bit of testing will catch. And I’m sure that it wouldn’t be too hard to fix either.

Obvious solutions coming to my mind would be: Not having a light in the charger plug and making the iPod make another noise when it comes unplugged. Those are very simple and wouldn’t even require Apple to do much new engineering work.

Facing these kinds of problems, I always start wondering whether Apple are any good at engineering. They never seem to have consistently good or bad products in that respect. While generally the PowerMacs seem to have been improved in terms of accessibility with every single generation in the past decade, there’ve always been bits of bad engineering around like loud ventilation or bad power supplies. Currently they seem to be doing quite well, though. On the other hand, the Powerbooks have become worse and worse after the Pismo Powerbook which was perfectly accessible for anything user maintainable. And if you happen to know anyone who replaced a hard drive in an iBook, you’ll also know someone who’s more than willing to curse Apple engineering.

[Perhaps engineering is the wrong word here and these are still design questions. Probably it’s a bit of both.]

April 30, 2005, 18:12

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